One of the most impressive cultural sites in the American Southwest Chaco Culture National Historical Park at Chaco Canyon reflects the sophistication of the Ancestral Puebloan civilization (also known as the Anasazi) that existed here. With its six “great houses” (pueblos containing hundreds of rooms), and many lesser sites, the canyon was once the political, religious, and cultural center for this people, It is thought that Chaco’s population was small; despite the size of the pueblos, the land could not have supported a larger community, Archeologists believe that the city was mainly used as a ceremonial gathering place, with a year-round population of fewer than 3,000 people. The inhabitants sustained themselves largely by growing crops and trading.
Usually, a pueblo had a number of adjoining kivas (pit-houses), as well as one great ksva. Early smaller kivas seem to have been dwellings, but most scholars agree that the great kivas were ceremonial places, barred to women and children, not merely community gathering sites. The first Chaco Canyon kivas appeared around AD 700, and while most were round, some were D-shaped. Kivas were entered through a hole in the roof and there was also a hole in the floor called a sipapu, which possibly symbolized the people’s connection from birth with Mother Earth. Near the center was a fireplace, and air shafts on the sides of the kivas made them more livable.
OTHER ANASAZI SITES
The Aztec Ruins National Monument was built by Puebloans in the 12th century. This important archeological site lies 69 miles (111 km) north of Chaco Canyon. There is a reconstructed great kiva here, as well as a pueblo consisting of 450 interconnecting rooms built of stone and mud. Farther to the north is Mesa Verde, Spanish for “green table,” which was inhabited by Puebloans between 550 and 1300. The Navajo National Monument, located 223 miles (358 km) northwest of Chaco Canyon, was also occupied by the Puebloan people in the late 13th century. Three of their best-preserved cliff dwellings, including the splendid Keet Steel, are here.
Around AD 400, the Chaco Canyon people began to settle in well-defined groups with a common culture know as “Anasazi,” a Navajo name said to mean “Ancient Enemy Ancestor.” For centuries, their villages stayed small, but a population explosion in the 11th century led to the construction of elaborate cliff dwellings and the building of a road system to connect some 400 settlements. Agriculture thrived — damns and irrigation systems were built and more successful strains of corn (maize) were planted to feed the growing population. However, by 1130 the towns began to empty, perhaps because of drought. People migrated, and by the 13th century the canyon was deserted.
Pueblo Bonito is an example of a “great house.” It was built in stages over the course of 300 years, from AD 850. This reconstruction shows how it might have looked, with its D-shaped four-story structure that contained more than 650 rooms.
Located on top of the mesa at the junction of several Chacoan roads is Pueblo Alto. In the 1860s, W. H. Jackson discovered an ancient stairway carved into the cliff wall.
Early Astronomers at Fajada Butte
Measurement of time was vital to the Puebloans for crop planting and the timing of ceremonies . A spiral petroglyph carved on Fajada Butte is designed to indicate the changing seasons through the shadows it casts on the rock.
The great kiva of Casa Rinconada is the largest religious chamber at Chaco, measuring 62 ft (19m) in diameter. It was used for spiritual gatherings.
A short trail from Pueblo Bonito leads to another great house, Chetro Ketl. Almost as large as Pueblo Bonito, Chetro Ketl has more than 500 rooms. The masonry used to build the later portions of this structure is among the most sophisticated found in any Puebloan site.
Great House Rooms
Hundreds of rooms within Pueblo Bonito show little sign of use and are thought to have been kept for storage, or for guests arriving to take part in ceremonial events .
Chaco’s skilled builders had only stone tools to work with to create this finely wrought stonework.
Archeologists believe that the inhabitants of Chaco Canyon replaced baskets with ceramics for culinary use between 400 and 750. The ceramic pieces found here to date are decorated with geometric designs and painted using minerals and carbons.
700-900: Domestic and ceremonial kivas are built, in Chaco Canyon.
850-1250: Chaco Canyon serves as a religious, trade, and administration center for the Anasazi people.
1896-1900: Archeologist George H. Pepper and his team excavate Pueblo Bonito.
1920: Edgar L. Hewitt excavates the nearby Chetro Ketl.
1987: Chaco Culture National Historical Park is named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.